Photography: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
In a cramped rehearsal space tucked away among the glittering towers of the City of London last week, a new theater company wrestled with an urgent contemporary dilemma: how should adults respond to children who carry knives?
Not far from the lodgings where William Shakespeare wrote his ‘problem plays’, a cast assembled by the Upsetters, a minority-focused theater company, staged a scene set in a secondary school office where teachers were talking to a mother of allegations that her son had carried a “zombie killer” knife. The atmosphere was tense.
In May at the Soho theatre, the show will become the company’s first West End show, offering a potential breakthrough moment for the small group, which is committed to working only with theater professionals from underrepresented cultural backgrounds. But he was also tense because with knife crime rates in England last year a third higher than in 2010-11, the current approach is not working and school-age lives continue to be lost.
Over the past week, a 19-year-old student was stabbed to death in Northampton, burglars stabbed a man to death in Brentford and an 18-year-old was left with life-changing stab wounds in Limehouse, east from London.
The play, Dismissed, by Daniel Rusteau, a writer who has worked for British and US TV, takes place mainly in a London secondary school after a knife falls from the bag of a black GCSE pupil. It follows teachers and parents as they struggle with options. In an implicit repudiation of so much drama having to do with black life that it foregrounds street violence, neither the boy nor the knife appears onstage.
“It’s from the point of view of teachers and parents, because that’s where it’s discussed [about how to tackle the issue] it’s having,” said Rusteau, 38. “It’s challenging how we think is the right way to do things: ethical absolutes and what needs to change because something has gone wrong.”
Producer and company founder Marcus Bernard, 37, said: “It doesn’t glorify the violence or trauma of these young people.”
Rusteau said that in television scripts, news reports, and programs such as Question Time, the coverage of knife crime was often “fetishized” and “salacious”.
In April, Home Secretary Suella Braverman announced a new plan to ban zombie machetes and knives in England and Wales, with people who sell them facing up to two years in prison. In the year to March, 99 under-25s were killed with sharp objects in England and Wales.
The company also hopes the show will hasten a correction of the underrepresentation of people of color in the theater world. In 2020, trade body UK Theater admitted that “the industry has traditionally been dominated by whites in its workforce and boards, and is still run and staffed primarily by whites”.
A 2017 survey of people working behind the scenes in UK theaters found that 93% were white, compared to 86% of the general population. No single minority ethnic group made up more than 1% of the workforce.
Rusteau said that when she was growing up she admired white playwrights such as David Hare and Martin McDonagh but lacked black role models.
Since then, writers like Michaela Coel have become stars. The Upsetters believe that the more theater that grapples with today’s social problems is made by a diverse group of professionals, the better the social impact can be.
“As [issues such as child knife possession] are portrayed in the news and in the media, in our TV and in our movies, that also impacts how we, as a general population, understand those issues,” Bernard said. “And the way we… think is the proper way to supervise our children when that happens.”